02/11/21 Alumni Spotlight: Jenna Knudsen ’97
What did you study at the USC School of Architecture? How did your studies influence your career path?
I received my B.Arch from the USC School of Architecture in 1997. In addition to the core studios, I participated in a range of diverse topic studios, including historic preservation, landscape and digital design. Digital design studios were rare in the mid ’90s and generally focused on technical 2D drafting. I skipped 2D drafting and was introduced to 3D modeling and digital design. I entered the profession at a critical transition to digital design, and my career has focused on leveraging technology to be better communicators and collaborators. I can see the seeds of this starting at USC.
What have you been up to since you graduated?
After graduation, I started work at CO Architects (formerly Anshen + Allen, Los Angeles), where I am now a principal. In the early 2000s, I got my Master of Architecture and Urban Design at Columbia University. I stayed in New York for a few years to work. When I returned to Los Angeles in 2004, I also returned to CO. During the past 20 years, I have worked on some incredible projects for mission-driven institutions, including Kaiser Permanente, UCLA, UCSD, University of Arizona and Arizona State University. Focusing on healthcare, research and education has been extremely rewarding, given the societal and community relevance of these buildings and who they are designed to serve.
What is a project you have completed recently that you are proud of?
The recently completed Tata Hall at UCSD is designed as an energy-efficient modern lab sitting in a mid-century modern campus. Driven by site conditions, the floor plate is very narrow and affords access to light and views from nearly every inch of the research labs. The labs have full glass windows on both sides, giving the researchers a vibrant, naturally lit work environment. We used some innovative glazing solutions, such as self-tinting glass on the east and west offices, to address shading and solar heat gain while maintaining the views of the Pacific Ocean and campus eucalyptus grove. The integration of landscape and building are exhibited through a gentle ADA accessible ramp that connects the landscape quad with the third-floor outdoor auditorium pre-function space overlooking the ocean. The building was designed to foster collaboration and creativity, and provide areas of respite and inspiration for scientific researchers tackling some of today’s most pressing problems.
CO Architects is working on a variety of renovation projects on the UCLA campus, including three seismic upgrades, two of which are to Paul R. Williams-designed buildings: Pritzker Hall Psychology Tower (formerly Franz Hall) and La Kretz Botany Building. It has been incredibly gratifying for the firm to dig into the original designs as inspiration for modern upgrades. The team uncovered a 1957 Williams Botany Building drawing for a never-realized mosaic mural and went about incorporating it into the updated lobby design. As part of the design process, a great deal of research went into learning about Williams. You can imagine our excitement at the announcement that the USC School of Architecture and the Getty Research Institute jointly acquired the Williams archives as there is so much to learn about this groundbreaking Black architect.
What are you currently working on? What’s something in the industry right now that you’re excited about?
I’ve been working on a new acute-care hospital project in San Marcos, which has recently started construction. Healthcare is about as complex, and socially important, as any building typology. The process of designing and delivering the projects takes the focus of many dedicated individuals and organizations working together. Most of my career has involved large projects delivered in some form of integrated project delivery. The integration of designer and builder has been and continues to be beneficial to the AEC industry. This excites me—a designer and builder pushing in the same direction is always more beneficial than pulling in different directions.
What inspires or motivates you?
I think we make our greatest contributions as diverse groups working together toward a common goal. In my professional career, I’ve dedicated myself to that idea, and have led extremely large teams of designers and builders in the design and execution of intricate buildings. I’m inspired by the greater levels of diversity I see in our teams, and am motivated to continue to push for diversity, equity and inclusion in the AEC industry. By embracing varied life experiences, perspectives and talents, we can achieve a richer architecture as a result.
What is the USC Architectural Guild up to this year? How can students and fellow alumni get involved?
The Guild has done a great job of pivoting to take all our programs virtual. I chaired the Awards program, which was held virtually at the end of last year. The funds raised this past year are going directly to student scholarships and programs. The mentorship program this year has been extremely successful, with more students and mentors participating than ever before. We just completed the student Design Charrette and are looking forward to the upcoming career week. All of these events are in direct support of students, so there are many opportunities throughout the school year for students to learn more about the Guild through participation in these Guild-sponsored programs.
Alumni can volunteer their time and talents to these events as well by mentoring a student, reviewing portfolios during career week or participating on a planning committee. One of the benefits of virtual events has been participation beyond Southern California, so alumni living outside the area now have the opportunity to get involved.
What advice do you have for current students studying architecture or hoping to enter a similar field to you upon graduation?
In addition to your design and graphic skills, develop your communication skills. Practice listening and learn to tell a compelling story. Designers often talk about buildings as objects and explain their features, but clients want to be told a good story about how the building will serve their needs. Finally, I’m a firm believer in saying yes. I’ve noticed a lot of advice lately to be very selective about saying yes. I believe that saying yes to unexpected opportunities can lead to places one never imagined.